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How To Master Dough Hydration 

 December 24, 2020

By  Gareth

Knowing how to tell if there is too much or not enough water in a dough is a skill many bakers struggle with.

In this post I’m going to explain the impact of getting the water hydration wrong, and what you can do to achieve the perfect water ratio!!

What is the problem with too much water

For soft bread we want a close knit crumb structure. There’s a balance between nicely hydrating dough so it becomes soft, and too much water.

Dough that is too wet finds that the water gets in the way of the gluten structure. It almost works like a lubricant, protecting the gluten when kneading and preventing a network to develop.

It’s also hard to work with!

This weakened structure can make bread collapse when rising or baking. It causes large air bubbles in the crumb and an irregular crust. The additional softness creates a higher risk of mould as well.

Can I add extra flour to the dough?

It is not technically great to add flour or water midway through kneading a bread recipe. When trying a new recipe or flour for the first time I am sometimes forced to add a touch of water or flour midway to save from disaster.

Adding flour to the table when kneading is not recommended as this just gets incorporated into the recipe. This can make us need to add more water to compensate and will unbalance the ratios of the other ingredients.

If it has to be done, adding extra flour should be done right at the start of mixing. This will allow it to develop by the kneading action.

What is the problem with not using enough water

Dough with a hydration level that is too low also stifles the ability of the gluten to unwind and stretch out. This creates a weaker dough structure and a smaller oven spring.

The dense, dry crumb will stale quickly making a dry dough not appealing.

Can I add more water to the dough during mixing?

Adding more water should be done as soon as possible during mixing. This is to avoid damaging the starch and protein particles from being kneaded whilst not fully hydrated. Don’t go too mad that you make a mess! 2% of the flour's weight at a time!

A decent set of scales is a definite must for bread baking! If you don't have any already the KD-700 by MyWeigh is really reliable.

Is a wetter dough better?

Water is the cheapest ingredient in bread. It makes sense that the more water incorporated will lower the price of the bread. This strategy is taken into consideration in bakeries across the world.

Water allows the gluten to stretch and strengthen the gluten structure. It also moistens the crumb to keep the bread soft.

Too much water for a dough can cause excessive moisture or gluten development issues. I know many bakers get excited with high hydration doughs of over 80% water. But, giving the flour the right amount of water as opposed to the most amount of water is my preferred way of working.

What should properly hydrated dough feel like

Incorporation

When dough is being mixed it will at first feel sticky in places and dry in others until it is incorporated. Once you have mixed for 2-3 minutes it should then start to feel sticky, but far from a free flowing liquid.

During kneading

As you continue kneading, the dough should remain soft and start to lighten up as the levain starts to activate and create gas. It should not feel dry but be light, bright white in colour and a little sticky. The stickiness usually goes away with more kneading. As kneading continues, the dough will start to hold together.

A dough that contains whole grain flour or is going to be bulk ferment for a long time will feel wetter. This allows time for the dough to absorb the water.

What percentage of water should I use in bread

A good starting point is 65% water in baker's percentage for white bread. 70% for wholemeal bread. Long fermented breads use a higher ratio of water.

What has an impact on water hydration

Bulk fermentation

As dough matures and the gluten softens, its ability to absorb more water increases. Dough that will undergo a long bulk fermentation time will be prepared wetter. This benefits the stretch of the gluten and the softness of the crumb.

If you make a dough that is too wet, wacking it in the fridge overnight to extend the bulk fermentation can work wonders.

How prefermented flour can help

Flour that has already been hydrated helps mature the fresh flour. This encourages the flour to retain more water. Doughs containing prefermented flour use around 3% more water.

Autolyse

An autolyse of the flour gives time for the water to be absorbed and hydrate the gluten. This allows a higher hydration ratio to be used without the need for a longer bulk fermentation.

The flour strength

All flour types require different water ratios to correctly hydrate the flour. Lower protein flour will absorb less water. The higher the protein, the more the water should be increased.

The quality of the protein makes a difference to water absorption, but this can only be determined using farinograph tests. A rough rule is for every 1% increase of protein in the flour, the water percentage in the recipe should rise by 2.5%.

Is the dough sticky because it’s too wet or because it’s got too much yeast?

If the dough gets hot and sticky it’s due to there being too gassy and warm. This can happen when not converting different yeast formats correctly. You can find conversion ratios in the yeast types page.

Controlling temperature throughout bread production helps prevent the dough becoming sticky as well.

How to achieve the best water hydration

  1. Follow a recipe from a reliable source that uses grams
  2. Determine Desired Dough Temperature and make checks throughout
  3. Feel the dough as you combine the water - get used to how it feels
  4. Feel the dough at the end of mixing
  5. Feel the dough during dough fermentation
  6. At shaping, feel the dough. Does it feel sticky, wet or dry?
  7. Adjust the water next time you make the recipe and feel again
  8. Repeat until you get a dough that feels strong

Conclusion

As you can see, feeling the dough is the only way to understand what dough should feel like at each stage. This is why I recommend mastering a handful of recipes before branching out to try other styles.

Get to know the recipe, your ingredients and improve your techniques and knowledge. Then transfer your skills to other recipes.

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